Whenever we lose our heads, “the terrorists win”

The Dish’s second Quote of the Day comes from David Rothkop, at Foreign Policy, who writes:

“[T]errorism by definition is only successful if it produces ‘terror’ — the kind of hysterical over-reaction we are once again seeing — yet this fact does not seem to have resulted in very many critics toning down their hysteria or shrillness. (The Republican Party has the collective cool on these matters of Prissy helping to birth Melanie’s baby in Gone With the Wind […] .)” – David Rothkopf.

[The Dish incorrectly indicated the quote’s start and end so I fixed it with brackets.]

Despite the root of the word, I think a successful act of terrorism by definition only has to produce fearful uncertainty, not “terror.”

When an ANC militant (and sometimes, IRA ones) called up a target of civilian infrastructure or a government building with civilians inside or nearby, and told everyone to get out before detonation, the explosion usually didn’t kill anyone and probably caused no sheer “terror.” But it still produced the fear that there was a possibility the next such attack could harm a civilian in the vicinity. (In a worst-case scenario, such as the Irgun’s attack on the King David Hotel, the pre-bombing calls would just be ignored.) Even though the intent was not to kill civilians, such an act increases pressure on people to vote in a way that would reduce the amount of these attacks and reduce the chance of death for them, their family and loved ones. What makes such acts terrorism — of a more morally fastidious kind — is that they deliberately endanger civilians instead of a military target, and want citizens to be politically motivated by increased fear.

Although the Dish liked Rothkopf’s attempt at semantic persuasion and the ensuing analysis, Andrew didn’t think this passage was notable in Rothkopf’s post:

Thus, what this incident really reminds us is, terrorists only have the power we give them. And that the emotional, the shrill, the over-the-top, the self-promoters, the hyper-political, and the other tummlers responsible for the inside-the-beltway mob mentality are as complicit in the spread of terror as those who are too soft on it. If the president’s rhetoric was slightly too weak for some tastes, he erred in the direction that also weakens our enemies rather than, as did his most vocal critics, the direction that turns operational failures like the one on Christmas Day into strategic successes for the bad guys.

I’m afraid that solipsism as a defense, although it may appeal to much of the Left right now, is not really sufficient to prevent terrorism from “succeeding,” since only a little more uncertainty and fear qualifies as success.

Furthermore, killing or maiming particular civilians in any community, or destroying particular infrastructure that determined how certain members of a community related to each other, starts to create holes in the social fabric where people and routine human relations are supposed to be. It’s hard to go on as usual and pretend that’s not happening, since in fact, things are suddenly not in their usual place. To just not register the surrealness, the feeling of uncertainty created by terrorists’ damage to life as you knew it ( — think of the change in the New York skyline — ) would be a kind of social psychosis and profoundly damaging in the longer-term. Think of what los desparecidos and living in denial did to Argentina.

“Going to our happy place,” or perhaps meditating on the “tree-falls-in-the-woods” question, is not going to become our metaphysical neutron bomb against these self-imagined “terrorists,” while our police, intelligence and military forces are out diligently arresting them. Couldn’t Sullivan detect that Kopf’s advice sounds like George Bush telling us to go shopping?

Whether the individual act is worth the resources terrorists spent on it, whether it supports a group’s reputation for strength, and whether the attack is well-positioned in time and place relative to the voting season or — what Rothkopf is talking about — the public consciousness all relate to the success of a group’s strategizing, a bigger question than the success of an attack. However, at the end of strategies, there are long-term idealized goals. We could say that the other definition of successful terrorism is when a campaign of such attacks actually change our policies or wrest control of an area or government.

Sullivan offers:

The balance is between rigorous vigilance toward the government’s indispensable role in preventing terror attacks from happening and/or succeeding – and not losing our shit every time some repressed trust-fund Islamist singes his bollocks. We have to both accept that some terror attacks will occur in a free society and that the government should nonetheless do all it legally can to prevent it. That’s a tough brand of stoicism.

I don’t know whether I’d use the word “accept,” or use that word on its own, but the point is obvious and well-taken … The phrase “That’s a tough brand of stoicism” is kind of funny, since it either makes the writer sound a bit dorky or makes stoicism sound like detergent … Perhaps he is thinking that this Ancient Greek virtue is something we have to sell to hysterical consumerist Americans. “That’s a spicy meatball!”

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